Elena

NON STOP PRODUCTION, Russia, 2011

Director
Andrey Zvyagintsev
Actors
Nadejda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Elena Lyadova, Alexey Rozin, Evgenia Konushkina, Igor Ogurtsov, Vasiliy Michkov
Year
2011
Production
NON STOP PRODUCTION, Россия
фото Владимира Мишукова / photo by Vladimir Mishukov

Andrey Zvyagintsev's Elena, The Apocalypse, and Moscow's Mosques

11/01/2011

 

Just south of the Kremlin lies Tatar Street. Tucked in one of its courtyards stands an unremarkable rectangular building that is Moscow's oldest mosque. The modesty of the "Historic Mosque's" architecture is no coincidence - in 1823 the Imperial government granted permission for the construction of a "Tatar House of Worship" on the condition that it neither be called a mosque nor externally resemble one in any way. The house's location and age are testament to the early arrival of Muslim immigrants in Moscow; its shape reflects the contested nature of their presence.

A minaret now crowns the mosque, but it is not this later addition that gives away the structure's function. On any day of the week, men with long robes and women with covered heads walk up and down Tatar Street. On religious holidays, the courtyard is full of worshippers. The mosque now serves a Muslim community that is more diverse - and much larger - than the Tatar one for which it was erected. Worshippers come from across the territory of the former Soviet Union: from Azerbaijan and Chechnya in the Caucasus, from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Central Asia, and from the Muslim communities on the Volga. The majority are now residents of Moscow, having arrived in the last decade in pursuit of opportunities created by Russian economic development.

Unfortunately, the latest wave of arrivals in Moscow has been accompanied by outbursts of the animosity that the Imperial government tried to minimize when it mandated the modest appearance of the Historic Mosque. In December 2010, thousands of young men clashed on Manezhnaya Square in the very heart of Moscow. One side was easily identified by scarves and jerseys proclaiming a local allegiance, to football club Spartak Moscow. Major newspapers described their opponents as "emigrants from the Caucasus," but the description often used on the streets of Moscow is not so long-winded. "Black" (chernyi) is increasingly used in Russian to differentiate people. "Black" is not, as the newspapers would have it, a geographically specific term; it can be applied both to a Dagestani from the Caucasus and an Uzbek from Central Asia. While Dagestanis and Uzbeks are both ethnically Turkic peoples, "black" is also not an ethnic term. Kyrgyz and Tajiks, neighbors in Central Asia, are of respectively Turkic and Persian origins, yet both in Moscow would be "black." And, even though there are strong associations with Islam, "black" is not a religious category; a dark-complexioned Christian from Armenia might just as easily be denigrated as his Muslim Azeri neighbor. All of these subtleties are subsumed in the anger that has produced the term "black," a word that emerges from a deep frustration with people who speak different languages, follow different customs, and - most importantly - find jobs. Indeed, the alternative word used in Russian is "gastarbeiter" - derived from the German for migrant worker - which reflects the economic origins of tension that is expressed by some in terms of religion and physiognomy.

Gastarbeitery (the "y" indicates plural in Russian) play a brief but striking role in the beautiful film Elena, the latest by prominent Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. In the opening scenes, a column of construction workers demand the viewer's attention as they block the path of the car the camera is following. The workers have all the ambiguity of the term gastarbeiter; no hint of a specific language, culture, or religion, they impress with their number and with appearances that are visibly not ethnic Russian. At the end of the film, the camera lingers on another group, this one playing soccer. Again, the gastarbeitery are presented as a collective unit, and one that is, in this carefully scripted narrative, clearly meaningful. Zvyagintsev is a meticulous director - whole apartments were built and scenes shot at night so that nothing unintended would slip on to the reels. To appreciate the cultural context for these scenes it is crucial to understand both the symbolism of the film and its significance.

Zvyagintsev claims that the idea for Elena originated with an invitation from the British producer, Oliver Dungey, to participate in a multinational project in which four directors from different hemispheres would each produce a film about the apocalypse. Zvyagintsev ultimately bowed out of the project, but the film that resulted is certainly eschatological. Russian culture has a long tradition of allusions to the Book of Revelation - Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov is obsessed with the idea that Napoleon is the Antichrist and many of Dostoevsky's characters read the last book of the Bible - and Zvyagintsev was a natural fit to take up the theme. His earlier films, The Return and The Banishment, are overtly biblical, drawing heavily on the stories of the resurrection and of exile from Eden. Yet despite the continued exploration of religious narratives, Elena is very different from his previous work. The Return and The Banishment offer some hope of rebirth and paradise, and they are insistently about a humanity void of geographic or national specificity. The Return is set far in the north, far from anywhere; The Banishment takes place on an indistinct landscape (in fact Moldova) whose characters possess names of ambiguous linguistic association - Robert, Mark, and Max.

It is thus in striking contrast that Zvyagintsev turns so firmly to a Moscow landscape to stage the apocalypse. The names are Slavic - Elena's husband's Vladimir and her son's Sergei - as are the sights. Moscow's Church of Christ the Savior and commuter suburbs are readily identifiable. Elena is emphatically about contemporary Russia, and emphatically about a Russian catastrophe.

Elena herself is from a poorer land, that of communal apartments and large families. But she has been elevated to a different Moscow through her relationship with Vladimir, a representative of the newly wealthy Russia. Vladimir is not an oligarch, but he is clearly comfortable in his shining Audi and apartment somewhere off prestigious Ostozhenka Street. The clash between Elena's and Vladimir's worlds, and the triumph of the former, is the heart of the film.

Elena was working as a nurse when Vladimir fell for her, and her relationship to him is primarily that of a caretaker. Sometimes they sleep together; mostly she cleans for him and serves him. Change comes from the outside. Elena has an unemployed son, Sergei, from a previous relationship, and Sergei needs money to pay his own son's way into the educational system and thereby avoid conscription by the army. Vladimir is loath to give money to a lost cause and, driven by thoughts of his own mortality, he announces to Elena that he will provide for her in his will, but that the bulk of his inheritance will go to his daughter. Elena is trapped between two loves, and ultimately the motherly, instinctual love leads her to murder.

Zvyagintsev insists that the film, as the title would seem to indicate, is a psychological exploration of its heroine. He has cited Woody Allen's Match-Point, and through it Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, as a point of reference. Zvyagintsev claims that this is a story about individual transformation. He does show us Elena's initial love for her husband - after his heart-attack she lights a candle for him in a church - and how it is supplanted by a concern for her immediate family that makes it possible for her eventually to kill the man to whom she is married. Zvyagintsev speaks repeatedly of repentance. But Elena and her family are too unsympathetic, and her personal story is lost in a bigger one.

Unjustly, Zvyagintsev has criticized a French distributor who asked him for a blurb on class war in Russia. Despite his denial, Zvyagintsev has done everything possible to make his film understandable as a commentary on "rich and poor." Vladimir and Elena share little more than an escape in television. When his wife does not know the meaning of the word hedonist, Vladimir explains, "That would be egoist in your language." The languages are as different as are understandings of space. When Elena's relatives occupy Vladimir's apartment, they immediately begin to partition his carefully designed quarters. And Zvyagintsev's admission that he considered "The Coming of the Barbarians" as a title reveals that, even for the director, this is much more than an individual or family drama.

The music of Zvyagintsev's Elena is the rhythmic tramp of feet or hooves and Elena's family multiplies like the best of barbarian tribes. In the Book of Revelation "the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand" and barbarian hordes are the most traditional element of apocalyptic imagery in Russian literature. In his "Panmongolism" of 1894, the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev foretold of a "host of regiments,/ gathered by China's walls./ Countless as locusts/ and as ravenous,/ shielded by an unearthly power,/ the tribes move north." Solovyev established the classic Russian nightmare of the apocalypse: catastrophe brought by swarms from the east. The poet Aleksandr Blok adapted Solovyev's interpretation for his "Scythians" in 1918, perhaps the most famous Russian ode on an apocalyptic theme: "Cruel huns/ rummage the pockets of corpses,/ Burn cities, drive cattle into churches,/ And roast the meat of our white brothers!" With his barbarian hordes and his apocalyptic prediction for the Russian future, Zvyagintsev clearly draws on the tradition established by Solovyev and Blok, among others.

In stark contrast, Zvyagintsev's apocalypse is markedly Russian. The migrant workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia could easily have provided Zvyagintsev with a metaphor to resonate with his predecessors. But gastarbeitery appear in a very different role. Their industriousness and sense of community serve as foils in which the opposing characters of the two Russian worlds are reflected. Vladimir watches with patience and tolerance as the workers cross and obstruct his path. Elena's grandson is visibly disgusted by the sight of Central Asian men playing football together in the courtyard. The multitudes from the east that are a staple of Russian literature are present for Zvyagintsev's apocalypse, but they do not threaten. Indeed, they are not even a part of the story.

The barbarians who bring Zvyagintsev's apocalypse march from inside Russia, from somewhere on the edge of Moscow. The film ends when Elena and her family take over murdered Vladimir's apartment in the heart of the city; this is, for Zvyagintsev, "the invasion of the barbarians" that spells Russia's end. How different this is from the narrative of Blok and Solovyev. Thankfully, Zvyagintsev is willing to see a threat from within: to see the apathy, the sense of entitlement, and the abuse of alcohol that cripple parts of the suburbs. But he has lost sight of something that Blok saw. As much as Blok feared a force from the east, he also acknowledged that Russia was a part of it: "Yes, we are Scythians!/ Yes, we are Asians!" The destruction of Judgment Day, after all, also promises a new beginning. Elena leaves no room for hope - even the pale horse and its rider have been killed by a train from the suburbs - and displays a myopic view of Moscow.

However one sees today's Moscow, in apocalyptic terms or otherwise, it is not an ethnically Russian city. Zvyagintsev chooses to portray gastarbeitery engaged in construction work, but many of the city's doctors, lawyers, and officials are not ethnically Russian. Some came in the last ten years, some in the last two hundred. The imprecision of all of the available words demonstrates the impossibility of segregating "Russians" and "non-Russians" as neatly as Zvyagintsev does. The minaret on the Historic Mosque now proudly proclaims that which the tsarist government tried to hide: Moscow is, and has for a long time been, a multiethnic city. If one does predict for Moscow an apocalypse - by definition all-embracing and inclusive - then one cannot speak only of Russians.

 

Zvyagintsev claims that the idea for Elena originated with an invitation from the British producer, Oliver Dungey, to participate in a multinational project in which four directors from different hemispheres would each produce a film about the apocalypse. Zvyagintsev ultimately bowed out of the project, but the film that resulted is certainly eschatological. Russian culture has a long tradition of allusions to the Book of Revelation - Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov is obsessed with the idea that Napoleon is the Antichrist and many of Dostoevsky's characters read the last book of the Bible - and Zvyagintsev was a natural fit to take up the theme. His earlier films, The Return and The Banishment, are overtly biblical, drawing heavily on the stories of the resurrection and of exile from Eden. Yet despite the continued exploration of religious narratives, Elena is very different from his previous work. The Return and The Banishment offer some hope of rebirth and paradise, and they are insistently about a humanity void of geographic or national specificity. The Return is set far in the north, far from anywhere; The Banishment takes place on an indistinct landscape (in fact Moldova) whose characters possess names of ambiguous linguistic association - Robert, Mark, and Max.

It is thus in striking contrast that Zvyagintsev turns so firmly to a Moscow landscape to stage the apocalypse. The names are Slavic - Elena's husband's Vladimir and her son's Sergei - as are the sights. Moscow's Church of Christ the Savior and commuter suburbs are readily identifiable. Elena is emphatically about contemporary Russia, and emphatically about a Russian catastrophe.

Elena herself is from a poorer land, that of communal apartments and large families. But she has been elevated to a different Moscow through her relationship with Vladimir, a representative of the newly wealthy Russia. Vladimir is not an oligarch, but he is clearly comfortable in his shining Audi and apartment somewhere off prestigious Ostozhenka Street. The clash between Elena's and Vladimir's worlds, and the triumph of the former, is the heart of the film.

Elena was working as a nurse when Vladimir fell for her, and her relationship to him is primarily that of a caretaker. Sometimes they sleep together; mostly she cleans for him and serves him. Change comes from the outside. Elena has an unemployed son, Sergei, from a previous relationship, and Sergei needs money to pay his own son's way into the educational system and thereby avoid conscription by the army. Vladimir is loath to give money to a lost cause and, driven by thoughts of his own mortality, he announces to Elena that he will provide for her in his will, but that the bulk of his inheritance will go to his daughter. Elena is trapped between two loves, and ultimately the motherly, instinctual love leads her to murder.

Zvyagintsev insists that the film, as the title would seem to indicate, is a psychological exploration of its heroine. He has cited Woody Allen's Match-Point, and through it Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, as a point of reference. Zvyagintsev claims that this is a story about individual transformation. He does show us Elena's initial love for her husband - after his heart-attack she lights a candle for him in a church - and how it is supplanted by a concern for her immediate family that makes it possible for her eventually to kill the man to whom she is married. Zvyagintsev speaks repeatedly of repentance. But Elena and her family are too unsympathetic, and her personal story is lost in a bigger one.

Unjustly, Zvyagintsev has criticized a French distributor who asked him for a blurb on class war in Russia. Despite his denial, Zvyagintsev has done everything possible to make his film understandable as a commentary on "rich and poor." Vladimir and Elena share little more than an escape in television. When his wife does not know the meaning of the word hedonist, Vladimir explains, "That would be egoist in your language." The languages are as different as are understandings of space. When Elena's relatives occupy Vladimir's apartment, they immediately begin to partition his carefully designed quarters. And Zvyagintsev's admission that he considered "The Coming of the Barbarians" as a title reveals that, even for the director, this is much more than an individual or family drama.

The music of Zvyagintsev's Elena is the rhythmic tramp of feet or hooves and Elena's family multiplies like the best of barbarian tribes. In the Book of Revelation "the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand" and barbarian hordes are the most traditional element of apocalyptic imagery in Russian literature. In his "Panmongolism" of 1894, the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev foretold of a "host of regiments,/ gathered by China's walls./ Countless as locusts/ and as ravenous,/ shielded by an unearthly power,/ the tribes move north." Solovyev established the classic Russian nightmare of the apocalypse: catastrophe brought by swarms from the east. The poet Aleksandr Blok adapted Solovyev's interpretation for his "Scythians" in 1918, perhaps the most famous Russian ode on an apocalyptic theme: "Cruel huns/ rummage the pockets of corpses,/ Burn cities, drive cattle into churches,/ And roast the meat of our white brothers!" With his barbarian hordes and his apocalyptic prediction for the Russian future, Zvyagintsev clearly draws on the tradition established by Solovyev and Blok, among others.

In stark contrast, Zvyagintsev's apocalypse is markedly Russian. The migrant workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia could easily have provided Zvyagintsev with a metaphor to resonate with his predecessors. But gastarbeitery appear in a very different role. Their industriousness and sense of community serve as foils in which the opposing characters of the two Russian worlds are reflected. Vladimir watches with patience and tolerance as the workers cross and obstruct his path. Elena's grandson is visibly disgusted by the sight of Central Asian men playing football together in the courtyard. The multitudes from the east that are a staple of Russian literature are present for Zvyagintsev's apocalypse, but they do not threaten. Indeed, they are not even a part of the story.

The barbarians who bring Zvyagintsev's apocalypse march from inside Russia, from somewhere on the edge of Moscow. The film ends when Elena and her family take over murdered Vladimir's apartment in the heart of the city; this is, for Zvyagintsev, "the invasion of the barbarians" that spells Russia's end. How different this is from the narrative of Blok and Solovyev. Thankfully, Zvyagintsev is willing to see a threat from within: to see the apathy, the sense of entitlement, and the abuse of alcohol that cripple parts of the suburbs. But he has lost sight of something that Blok saw. As much as Blok feared a force from the east, he also acknowledged that Russia was a part of it: "Yes, we are Scythians!/ Yes, we are Asians!" The destruction of Judgment Day, after all, also promises a new beginning. Elena leaves no room for hope - even the pale horse and its rider have been killed by a train from the suburbs - and displays a myopic view of Moscow.

However one sees today's Moscow, in apocalyptic terms or otherwise, it is not an ethnically Russian city. Zvyagintsev chooses to portray gastarbeitery engaged in construction work, but many of the city's doctors, lawyers, and officials are not ethnically Russian. Some came in the last ten years, some in the last two hundred. The imprecision of all of the available words demonstrates the impossibility of segregating "Russians" and "non-Russians" as neatly as Zvyagintsev does. The minaret on the Historic Mosque now proudly proclaims that which the tsarist government tried to hide: Moscow is, and has for a long time been, a multiethnic city. If one does predict for Moscow an apocalypse - by definition all-embracing and inclusive - then one cannot speak only of Russians.

 

Samuel J. Hirst